Peter Stanford: When is it right for new trustees to speak up?

Even hard-nosed professionals can find it difficult to judge when and how to make their early contributions around the boardroom table, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

How soon should you speak up – or out – after you join a trustee board? That was the dilemma I was discussing recently with an old friend, a high-achieving professional in a hard-nosed industry who has just joined, for all the right reasons, her first trustee board at one of our older charities. But because she was new to the set-up and situation, and new to the whole idea of trusteeship, she was confused.

She had been brought on board, she explained, because of her own commercial acumen. With the fresh eyes and keenness of a new recruit, she had read all the board papers and had spotted some operational assumptions that puzzled her and which she felt needed re-examining. "But they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time and very successfully," she confided, "and I don’t want to start attacking that at my first, or even my second or third trustee meeting. They will think I am on some ego trip that involves rubbishing everything that has gone before to prove my worth. Which I’m not. So I’m biting my lip."

I knew exactly what she was talking about. A long time ago, I joined a trustee board that was seeking media experience. What I knew nothing about, however, was the intricate work the charity did very successfully, so it felt right to listen more than speak and swallow my questions for meeting after meeting. I didn’t want to make a show of myself and have them regret appointing me.

There is, it seems, something about trustee boards – especially regarding new arrivals – that inhibits. Perhaps it is the sense of joining a very grown-up, long-established club, with rules unlike any other board, that engenders an instinctive caution about rocking the boat. In adverts for other jobs, after all, you will often see phrases such as "hit the ground running" or "able to think the unthinkable", but never in those for vacancies for trustees.

What I think is hardest for new trustees to get their heads round is that stewardship part of the role of trustee, which is unlike anything most of us have experienced. You’re not there to earn a wage, or earn promotion, or hit targets, but on behalf of beneficiaries, donors and the community at large to ensure good governance. It requires quite a change of mindset.

Yes, most charities will now have induction programmes for new trustees so they can get up to speed with what the charity does. But do we also need to add in more about the wider dimension of trusteeship, its rights and responsibilities, so as to reassure and empower those we recruit? Perhaps we should even have some sort of mentoring or pairing of old hands at being trustees with recent arrivals, so that they learn the ropes, can privately ask the questions that occur to them without having to hold up a whole trustee meeting, and can be helped to channel their observations in a way that develops their confidence and makes them effective additions, rather than an uneasy, jarring voice of dissent.

It’s not that I want to shackle them from challenging the status quo. That is often precisely what is needed. I simply want to make able recruits such as my old friend feel confident about making what could be game-changing contributions round the trustee table. As it is, she confided, the struggle to find her feet has made her wonder what she is doing there at all, and whether she really has time in a busy working diary for the additional angst it is giving her.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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